by Steve Lancaster 5/6/16
It has been 25 years since Michael Cimino released Heaven’s Gate. Most of the controversy has died down. It was an expensive movie to make and killed the studio, United Artists. The cost of production exceeded 40 million dollars and domestic revenue was less than 4 million. Only the success of Cimino’s Deer Hunter kept the studio from cancelling the project. Cimino was given so much artistic freedom that the story he told with Heaven’s Gate and the actual history became two separate narratives.
The movie is full of stars: Kris Kristofferson, Isabell Hubbard, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, and Jeff Bridges with a short by Joseph Cotton. It staggers imagination how all of these very capable actors could produce a questionable product.
The story is listed as a western and many critics have called it, with good reason, an anti-western. It is allegedly about the 1890 Johnson County Wyoming War. As a historian I can tell you that any resemblance between the actual history of the Johnson County War and Heaven’s Gate is an accident on the part of the director. However, should that ruin the story?
The story is about an Eastern aristocrat, Jim Averill/Kristofferson, who graduates from Harvard in 1870 and twenty years later is marshal of Johnson County. The story is played out against a backdrop of massive numbers of Eastern European settlers who are taking over the free range — and the stockmen’s association seeking to protect that range. Nate Champion/Christopher Walken is an enforcer for the association and Jim Averill’s friend. The also share a love interest with Ella Watson/Isabell Hubbard who is the madam of a local brothel.
Sam Waterston plays the leader of the Stockmen’s Association. The association votes to go to war to protect their range and recruits 100 men to scour Johnson County and execute 125 of the leaders in the county, including Ella Watson, Nate Champion and, if he joins the cause, Jim Averill.
It is pretty standard fare as a plot without any redeeming subplots and the movie ends on a confusing note some 23 years later with Averill on a yacht with the girl he started the movie with at Harvard in 1870.
In spite of some poor performances, questionable direction, confusing plot and lack of any kind of historical accuracy, why recommend Heaven’s Gate? The music score by David Mansfield is magnificent and the cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond make the movie. The opening of the movie blends music and picture into a bewitching invitation. It is Harvard Yard 1870, the first class of graduates untouched by war march into the graduation ceremonies to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Later the entire class is shown dancing a waltz, The Beautiful Blue Danube — the second best use of this waltz, with the best being from 2001.
Zsigmond captures the big sky county in such a manner that the viewer feels the power and openness of the country and yet many shots are framed in such a way that they would stand as a painting you would want on your wall. One such shot shows Ella bathing nude in the river with Jim asleep leaning on a buggy wheel. It is almost a Monet on film.
Music and cinematography mix again in the roller rink with a beautiful theme played on a fiddle and several hundred people dancing on roller skates to the tune. Later, after all have left, it turns into a waltz for just Jim and Ella.
Perceptive viewers could easily work modern themes into the movie. Big business, big government, exploitation of the poor and privilege of the wealthy all have substance but sometimes you just have to suspend belief and enjoy a passable story, with some incredible music and pictures. • (478 views)